Monday, January 12, 2015

Regarding Starr King: A Heartfelt Call

I began this blog article in late November, and worked it through several drafts and researched it as thoroughly as I was able, and then had it reviewed by several trusted people, and then, after all that, decided not to publish it.  Instead, I wanted to reach out first directly to the Starr King Board, and so on December 15th, 2014, I sent a letter to the Starr King Board and SKSM President Rosemary Bray McNatt.  Since my December drafts, however, a lot has happened.  Two more faculty have resigned from Starr King.  Rev. Kurt Kuhwald's resignation letter and other documents can be read on Dan Harper's blog.  It's also worth noting that Rev. Kurt Kuhwald also asks the UUA Board to conduct an inquiry -- something I don't address in my statement, but worth considering further.  The UU Society for Community Ministries has put out a Statement of Concern, calling on Starr King to reverse the refusal of diplomas and to focus energy on restoring trust.  And a list has been published of colleagues pledging support for Starr King, including financial donations.  In staying silent, I was hoping for Starr King to come to resolution quickly.  That has not happened, and events have continued to escalate.  And so I feel it's time to publish the statement I worked so hard on in December, updating it only slightly to reflect recent events.  


I’m a graduate of Meadville Lombard, and believe firmly that we need Unitarian Universalist seminaries, and we need to support Unitarian Universalist seminaries institutionally and personally and financially.  Our UU seminaries have an important role in our movement.  While it is true that UU seminaries only train a fraction of our ministers in the UUA, all of our ministry and congregations benefit from them – from the scholarship that comes from them, from the fact that they keep documents and artifacts important to our movement in their libraries and buildings, and from the institutional opportunities for knowledge that they offer not just to their own seminarians but to all seminarians and ministers in our movement. 

I’m not just a graduate of Meadville Lombard, I’m also married to a graduate of Starr King.  For one year, we created an exchange program between the two schools where I studied at Starr King for the fall semester, and my husband (then fiancĂ©) studied in Chicago for the winter and spring quarters.  I got to see first hand why so many Starr King graduates see Starr King as a magical and special place.  Rebecca Parker’s leadership while I was there was at once theologically rigorous and softly pastoral and uniquely visionary.  The faculty were demanding and yet the institution was caring.  I believe Starr King is a wonderful and unique institution, and I support it strongly. 

In addition, I joyfully embrace the calling of Rosemary Bray McNatt as the new president of Starr King School for the ministry.  Her leadership is the right leadership for this time, and it should have the opportunity to thrive.

And so I urge those Unitarian Universalists who are able, to join those pledging support for Starr King School for the Ministry at this time.  This theological school is a treasure to us as a movement.  It is an important resource for Unitarian Universalism, and needs our support to continue its important job of training Unitarian Universalists for the ministry. I will continue to give to Starr King when I am able, and I continue to believe in its overall mission and purpose.

When I was at Meadville Lombard we had a lot of fear and anxiety among the students, so I understand how that climate can happen.  There was enormous transition going on during my time there – an almost complete president, faculty, and staff  turnover, a transition in our relationship to the University of Chicago, and re-accreditation by the association of theological schools, just to name some factors.  I’ve watched events unfolding at Starr King[i] with concern and love for my friends on the faculty and board and ad hoc committee. 

Starr King had the need to investigate.  But there is clearly internal division about their response, with the faculty originally voting to confer the degrees; three faculty members speaking up about disagreements with this process; two board members, three faculty members, and one staff member resigning, all in some part related to this situation; and at least two students reported withdrawing, perhaps more.  This tells the larger community that people of good will and conscience in the system, who care deeply about the school, are not united behind the current approach.  It’s time for the board to reconsider.

Personally, if I were in this situation, I would not hand over my email account and laptop -- if I had the strength and courage that Brock and Spangenberg have.  Their clarity in understanding that doing so would violate the confidentiality expected of them as UU ministers should be applauded, not held against them.  I find it troubling that Brock and Spangenberg’s ethical stance is being considered as evidence against their fitness for ministry, rather than for it.  (“Garcia believes that students’ refusal to turn over their personal communications to the school is relevant to their fitness to be ministers,” writes the UU World; please note that SKSM disagrees with the word “believes,” essentially saying it is relevant.) 

I believe Starr King has the right to withhold degrees – but it needs to be for a clear cause.  In this case, from the beginning Starr King’s approach has been a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach -- “To be clear, the conditional conferral does not suggest that the board has concluded that those students have engaged in improper conduct. Rather, we have concluded that we do not yet have sufficient information to be able to grant the degrees unconditionally.”  Starr King’s statements make it clear that there is no proof of any improper behavior, nor evidence that either Brock and Spangenberg are the original leaker, nor that they are not the Strapped Student, who according to Rosemary Bray McNatt's statements has withdrawn from the school.

I’ve had members of my congregation and others who usually pays no attention to denominational politics talking to me in dismay about Starr King’s actions, particularly the demanding to see confidential personal e-mails. We’ve reached a tipping point where the response is doing more harm to the institution than the original leak did, and where Starr King stands to lose considerable respect and trust from our lay members and ministers if the situation continues much longer beyond the over half a year that it's been already.  It's time for Starr King to bring this situation to a close.   
I urge Starr King to resolve the matter of Brock's and Spangenberg's degrees quickly; to consider these students innocent until proven guilty, rather than the opposite; and remove the request to see Suzi Spangenberg’s and Julie Brock’s personal email accounts and computers.  

Julie Brock and Suzi Spangenberg were leaders in the SKSM community.  We know that they were there at an April 4 student body meeting where the leaked documents were discussed.  We know that the school says they were early recipients of the leak.  Beyond that, there has been no proof of their involvement.  And this delay has come with increasing financial cost and increasing damage to their reputations, as well. We do have an organization that functions as a gatekeeper that's equipped to evaluate this information. 

The Ministerial Fellowship Committee, if Starr King does not resolve the matter and leaves the degrees in limbo, could consider taking the unusual step of allowing Brock and Spangenberg to forego the M.Div. and consider their work done “an equivalent determined by the MFC.”  I respectfully ask of the MFC that they consider taking this action. Of course, Brock and Spangenberg should still be held to the same rigorous standards as any candidate for our ministry, and complete any other unfinished steps, such as internships.  

The students are the ones with the least power and access to resources in this situation.  Regardless of their guilt or innocence in the leaking of documents, they are also taking a principled stand and enduring financial hardship to do so. Funds not used by Brock and Spangenberg for their legal help will, with the donors’ permission, go to a fund to help seminarians in crisis.  That’s a worthy thing to support, as well.

So I also invite Unitarian Universalists to join in supporting Brock and Spangenberg’s legal defense fund. (Note: Control of the fund has being transferred to the UUSCM, and you can donate here: http://www.uuscm.org/SKSM-Student-Legal-Defense-Fund).

I don’t have any more right to decide what should be done than any other Unitarian Universalist. And yes, there are things about the situation that I don't know, but other things, such as the request for e-mails and the assumption of guilt before proof, are clear from what we do know.  This has been one of the hardest things I've ever written, because I know it's controversial, it's murky, and I have conflicting loyalties.  It pains me to think that speaking up for what I think is right may cost me friendships and be professionally or personally damaging.  That's why I've stayed silent as long as I have, and I'm sure that's true for others as well.  But my worship theme for this month is "integrity."  I have tried to act with integrity in speaking first to the SKSM Board and President, and now by speaking up for what I think is right.  This has gone on too long, and is creating more damage as it goes on to everyone involved.  It's time to change course, to deescalate, and if that doesn't happen, for UUs to speak up.  We have a right, collectively, to influence our movement, our religion, our ministry, and our theological schools.  


[i]  Here are links to documents about the situation, in addition to the newer information linked to in my introduction: